29 Mar 2018
Jenin, Palestine
Organic Food and Agriculture

Many university students ponder what they will do after university, but fewer find that passion and follow it to the point of expertise. Basel Amarna, the founder of H2O Farm, is the exception.

A second-year agronomy student at Palestine Technical University – Kadoorie, Amarna was searching for a direction for his career. Browsing academic publication site, ResearchGate, he stumbled across hydroponics. It was a new agricultural technique to him — and, at the time, to Palestine.

“It was very interesting to me, so I did lots of research, read journals, watched videos, and collected information,” Amarna says of the period after his discovery. He built prototypes, failed, and rebuilt. After years of experimentation and studying, Amarna has established himself as one of the forefront Palestinian experts working on hydroponics, having already published an academic paper about the technique.

Necessity is the mother of all creation:

As with any expert pioneering a field of study, Amarna’s business journey was wrought with challenges. Palestinian farmers were skeptical of the agricultural alternative, and investors even more so. Explaining the theory of hydroponics to farmers was not working, and so when Amarna graduated in 2015, he opened his own farm in order to lead by example.

“I invited farmers to visit my operations and compare what I have at my farm with theirs. I also held workshops in cooperation with local communities and organizations. I promoted hydroponics through my Facebook page and sponsored ads, and by appearing on television and radio shows — anything I could do,” he says.

The challenge of convincing farmers to adopt a new method was compounded by another: the inability to afford or create the nutrient solution used in hydroponics systems worldwide. This mineral solution is an essential part of hydroponics, infusing the water with the nutrients plants need to stay healthy. Israel restricts access to the raw materials used to create the solution — chemicals such as potassium, ammonium, and calcium nitrates — so Amarna set out to create his own nutrient solution.

Working in tandem with his agronomy studies, Amarna took six years to mix, measure, and experiment, eventually creating a nutrient solution with the efficacy of that used abroad — only for less money and using commonly available alternatives. He is currently seeking to patent the innovation.

The creation of this nutrient solution was important not only for his own operation but for progressing the culture of hydroponics in Palestine. “To promote hydroponics, I have to provide farmers with everything related to that technique,” says Amarna. “It was my responsibility to the community, to offer them a full solution.”

Experimenting with hydroponics best practices:

Amarna uses this nutrient solution in his farm today. H2O Farm is a 340-square-meter operation, which produces 8,000 plants monthly. For comparison, an operation of that size using conventional watering methods would yield between just 500 and 1,000 plants in the same time period.

Creating agricultural resilience in the West Bank is important to Amarna. “We are losing our soil fertility, and have no access to our water resources as an occupied people,” explains Amarna. “We have to think about an integrated, sustainable solution. I think this can be hydroponics because it uses less than 80% of the water of traditional agriculture.”

Not only that, but hydroponics systems do not even need soil to function — once built, they can be installed on school rooftops, rocky outcrops, and anywhere with a flat surface. Amarna has even created a hydroponics farm on a chemical factory rooftop in Jerusalem.

In the name of experimentation, H2O Farm is testing various styles of hydroponics systems. There is the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) where a submersible water pump moves water through a series of stacked pipes. Planted directly in the pipes, seedlings slurp up the water solution before the water is drained and cycled back into the pumping tank. When vegetables, fruits, and herbs are in full sprout, a functioning NFT system looks as though you are walking through a corridor of green walls.

Then there is the Dutch Bucket System, where water is distributed into buckets using an irrigation line, and drained into a main tank. Amarna is even experimenting with non-cyclical hydroponics systems to see what works. Ultimately, he hopes to develop a new hydroponics technique that integrates the best features of each system.

Amarna is also looking for investment to help him grow the size of H2O Farm to 1,000 square meters. “A difficulty with hydroponics is that the initial cost is very high,” says Amarna, who received a grant from The Palestinian Agricultural Relief Community to first start his operations.

Growing the culture of hydroponics in the West Bank:

While establishing other hydroponics companies could be seen as creating competition, Amarna views Palestine’s growing hydroponics scene as a success, not a threat. In addition to selling his crops, he relies on various consultancy and training activities as a way to raise awareness and funds for H2O Farm.

Since 2015, he has helped establish more than 10 farms across the West Bank, including a large operation that produces cut flowers. Amarna’s Made-in-Palestine nutrient solution is just one part of his offering. H2O Farm also provides the instruments, raw materials, seedlings, design work, and expertise needed to establish a hydroponics farm. To support this mission, H2O now has three other employees.

Amarna is also offering others the expertise they need. Working with his former university and other institutions, Amarna has created a training program to share his hydroponics experience. Offering training for students aged 10 to 14, Amarna is ensuring other young Palestinians discover hydroponics, just as he did during his studies. “Children at that age can be easily convinced to use more sustainable solutions, and think about the environment,” says Amarna for the reasoning behind the school workshops.

Amarna’s position as an expert in hydroponics will be affirmed at a global level in April, when he will be the only Palestinian competing in the Future Agro Challenge in Istanbul, Turkey. There, he will have the chance to pitch H2O Farm’s work and compete with 50 other people to become the world’s most recognized agripreneur.

With awareness-raising activities and a successful business example to scale, Amarna may be the first commercial hydroponics operation in Palestine, but he is certainly not the last.

 

 

Find out more about H2O Farm by visiting their Facebook page.

Photos: courtesy of Basel Amarna.

Hilary is a journalist, photographer, and maker of things. She loves working with entrepreneurs to share their stories and has done so around the world.Hilary Duff
The Palestinian agripreneur using hydroponics to grow agricultural resilience in the West Bank | The Switchers
H2O Farm Organic Food & Agriculture
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